Being inspired by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, is not something I ever expected but her recent performance before a House of Commons Select Committee did just that. Admittedly, it was a wet day and afternoon television offered few alternatives but there she was happily displaying abject ignorance of her subject and blatant bias in her interpretation of facts. The committee treated her rather like exasperated parents with a wilful child but reminded one that committees are not always useless.
Milton Berle is credited with the jibe that a committee is a group that keeps minutes and wastes hours. Over the years, he has often been right and I have the scars to prove it. Basically, you have to know how to work a committee.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation invited me to join their UK publicity committee back in the 1960s. Other rather more celebrated members included Lord Ritchie Calder and Richard Hoggart. We met monthly in London and talked about how to burnish Unesco's UK image. Lord Ritchie Calder always spoke last and always figured in the minutes. After six months, we stopped meeting and I never heard from them again.
The Scottish Council (Development and Industry) used to be run by a man with a beautiful mind, William S Robertson. His one flaw was the belief that everything needed a committee. There were Finance, Publications, Export, Exhibitions and even a New Opportunities Committee. There was a famous one, 'Into The Scottish Economy', which was chaired by Sir John Toothill. When the results were announced, one of the secretaries, John Donachy, summed up it up neatly by saying the crucial strategy was 'to go for growth'. Whether or not we needed an exhaustive effort by a distinguished committee to come to that conclusion is an interesting thought.
While in the Royal Air Force, I was secretary to a committee of enquiry into a monumental SNAFU that saw six Hawker Hunter jet fighters crash while training. Weather forecast for Norfolk 'Hail, snow, and jet fighters' was one newspaper response that would have been funny if one pilot had not died. The lengthy report laid the blame on one officer in a control tower who failed to divert the aircraft correctly when the weather went bad at his airfield. What was truly impressive was the way the planned alternative landing airfield marshalled and delivered their evidence in stark contrast to the limp explanation from the officer who diverted. No doubt the inquiry's findings were justified but one could not help feeling that careful preparation and presentation had played an important part.
My final experience was with the Grand National horse race. Sponsors and Aintree staff used to meet monthly to discuss vital issues like where cars and buses could be parked, where banners could be displayed, and, memorably, what curtains could be fitted into the main viewing box. More weighty matters were discussed but waffle was not absent. At the risk of offending former colleagues, I reckon the race went on quite happily without our endeavours.
Nadine Dorries, however, did remind me that not all committees are a waste of time. There may be other legacies of her time in charge of culture, but being crunched by the Select Committee is the one to remember with real pleasure.
There is no getting away from it but those two years of the pandemic have left their mark. So far, I have escaped Covid but now things are getting back to something like normal, I am finding returning to doing things like in the past quite difficult, especially when it comes to foreign travel. I didn't want to join the lemmings, who rushed away at the first opportunity, and found myself reluctant even to think about it until the other day. I was shamed by my 93-year-old friend Teresa. I had called to see how she was, to be told she had just returned from the Rhine cruise she had booked pre-pandemic. If at her age she could cope with foreign parts, why at several years her junior was I twitching about going anywhere?
So I did something about it and booked a week in Toulouse, the so-called pink city, which I have wanted to visit for some time. I am going by train via Paris and that too is booked as I do not want to fly just yet. It was all done online and left me longing for the days when one talked to a travel agent who did all the work for it you. There used to be a branch of Thomas Cook in the House of Commons when I worked there – there may still be – so for 20-odd years my holiday bookings were arranged through them. After I left Westminster, I used Expedia. It is still there but has changed its layout and what was easy has suddenly become difficult.
However, Booking.com has solved the hotels and Eurostar the train. Maybe Toulouse will cure my reluctance to go abroad as I have just lined up an 18-day jaunt in September in Italy, starting in Venice. This time, I think I will fly, as train travel seems incredibly difficult to arrange without a travel agent. Either way, by air or land, there remains the problem of luggage. The suitcase has to be modest in size but contain enough to see one through and easy to wheel along. Many years ago, I thought I had discovered the answer to the clean underwear problem. There was a brief fashion for paper disposable underwear which seemed a good idea until I unpacked. I had bought fetching pale blue paper broderie anglais briefs meant for ladies. An accident wearing those would have been embarrassing so into the wastepaper basket they went.
I suppose what it boils down to is that being young in heart is all very well, but old in person is no laughing matter or perhaps pants.
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